The recent turmoil in global energy markets resulting from the war in Ukraine have placed significant strain on the path towards keeping global warming below 1.5 degrees, the only way to avoid catastrophic climate change, and the central goal of the 2015 Paris Agreement. Some countries have not been able to avoid the temptation to return to burning coal in response to the shortage of gas supplies, a hydrocarbon that emits half the amount of carbon dioxide when compared with coal, and therefore a key fuel on any path for energy transition towards the 1.5 target as recognized by the IPCC.
So, where are we now, and what are the prospect for COP 27 in Sharm El-Sheikh? Importantly, COP 27 marks the 30th anniversary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) negotiated in 1992 at the Rio Conference. Instead of a clear occasion for celebration, the reality is a bit grimmer and unclear.
At the close of the previous gathering in Glasgow last year, COP 26 President Alok Sharma concluded that although 1.5°C remains alive, its ‘pulse is weak’. This was the assessment even before the Ukraine events; the UNFCCC Secretariat estimated that the cumulative National Determined Contributions (NDC) towards the Paris goals would lead to 2.7°C of global warming by 2100. In other words, when all the voluntary pledges to reduce emissions under Paris are added up, we are very far from a 1.5 scenario. Furthermore, the IPCC has confirmed that to have any chance of limiting warming to 1.5°C, emissions must peak in the first half of this decade, and by 2025 global emissions must be lower than in 2020, on the way to a 45% reduction by 2030 from 2010 levels. Is there still a path to get there?
In fact, there are still two paths very much alive. The first one is based on the concept of “the ratchet.” Although the Paris pledges are voluntary, countries agreed to submit updated NDCs periodically so that they could enhance their “ambitions.” Regular five-year updates could enhance the collective ambition so that the cumulative NDCs would lead to the 1.5 promised land. Peer pressure can play a strong role.
The second path has to do with the rapid advances in technology that we are currently witnessing. As global warming becomes more urgent, entrepreneurs everywhere continue to innovate to take advantage of the growing opportunities for large financial gains in the business of responding to the climate crisis. This is going beyond carbon markets becoming healthier. Rapidly advancing technologies include developing decarbonization avenues through hydrogen, ammonia, carbon capture and storage. These investments represent important strategic opportunities for countries such as Qatar that produce gas, widely recognized as a transitional fuel in the 1.5 degree scenario, perhaps even prolonging is usefulness indefinitely. Here, there is significant room for optimism if we consider the way humankind came together to fight COVID-19, and the amazing advances in technology that gave us a vaccine in a record one year time.
In addition to mitigation, the issue of adaptation has also become much urgent. The 1.5 scenario is neither business as usual, nor safe. A world that is 1.5 degrees warmer will be one with significant threats to life, property, and ecosystems. Adaptation will be inevitable to deal with crises related to food security, desertification, water scarcity, sea level rise, disease, and the inevitable civil strife that will follow. Here, the issue of equity becomes central to the discussions. It is precisely those countries least able to adapt that will suffer the brunt of the climate impacts.
Quite a bit of work still ahead for humankind, but a bit of room for cautious optimism.
Gonzalo Castro de la Mata, Executive Director, Earthna Center for a Sustainable Future at Qatar Foundation